Jazz Interview: A Conversation with Music Promoter Alex Lemski 

By David Daniel

“Music here is great, cutting edge. But to get an audience anywhere you need to get covered…. Promoting is a struggle, dealing with the lack of media coverage.”

Trumpeter Greg Kelley will perform with electronics wiz Bonnie Jones in Cambridge on August 27. Photo: Danny Gromfin.

Alex Lemski is a busy man. As the self-identified “soloist” of The Creative Music Series, he produces an ambitious series of performances and presents them in intimate venues in the Somerville/Cambridge area. Established in 2015 to “showcase the work of adventurous jazz musicians,” CMS came about as a reaction to “the apparent lack of invitations being extended to accomplished and new talent” from outside the local scene. CMS is now focused on hosting collaborations — with an emphasis on taking musical risks — between Boston-based musicians and out-of-town guests. For Lemski, challenge, variety, and change have always been the heart and soul of jazz.

On August 12, at the Middle East Club in Cambridge, CMS will present a rare screening of A Place for Jazz, an acclaimed 1991 documentary about the legendary 1369 Jazz Club. (Details below.) On August 27, CMS will host a performance at Cambridge’s Lilypad featuring trumpeter Greg Kelly from Boston and electronics wiz Bonnie Jones from Providence/Baltimore. The meeting puts “one of the premier trumpet improvisers and experimenters on the planet in duet!”

Recently, the Arts Fuse caught up with Lemski for a free-ranging conversation about his work.

Arts Fuse:  What spawned your obvious passion for jazz?

Alex Lemski: As a child, my mother introduced me to her music — classical and opera. I was into rock and roll, but hers struck a chord in me, a realization of there being many kinds of music. In school I took advantage of opportunities to attend concerts and performances. And I never gave up my music, rock and roll; it was part of my being. Fast forward to high school where I had friends who were “beatniks,” into jazz. That got me listening, too.

I failed at my first attempt at college and ahead of getting drafted I joined the Air Force. Stationed in England, living on base in a Quonset hut, I saw a lot of Black GIs who listened to jazz. I was curious and I started to pay attention. From the magazine rack in the PX I picked up Downbeat and began to read the profiles. And I’d buy LPs — Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins. I loved the sounds. The music struck me as “mature.” Classical music of a different type. So, all this, starting with what I’d heard of my mother’s music, to my own generation’s love of rock, to what I was hearing now — it gave me an open mind.

In London the record shops had booths you could go in and listen for free. I’d listen to Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Art Blakey. And I kept reading the magazines for opinions, reviews, interviews. I was getting serious about it. I saw the music as an expression of life. Coltrane Live at Birdland shocked me.

Promoter Alex Lemski

AF: Shocked you how?

Lemski: It exploded. The bursts of sound. I’d loved Coltrane’s album My Favorite Things — that blew my mind. But this one, I had to turn it off. My ears weren’t used to it. But I knew it was important.

AF: That’s got McCoy Tyner and…

Lemski: Yeah, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. Of course, I later recognized what Coltrane was doing. I’m not a musician, but his music took hold of me. It was all very emotional to me. [Note: Live at Birdland, released in 1964, contains the track “Alabama,” Coltrane’s tribute to four children killed in the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham by white supremacists.] Wayne Shorter and Art Blakey were my guides to hard bop. I was leaving swing behind. Three quarters of my LP and CD collection is hard bop. But I’ve got plenty of other things too. The full scope of jazz is still real to me. That’s the beauty of the music — there’s endless variety. People coming up with new ideas.

AF: You still listen to LPs?

Lemski: Still do. I have about 300 plus. And CDs, of course. I used to have over 1300, all in, but I had to sell most of it because I needed the cash. (laughs)

AF: You’ve lived elsewhere prior to coming to Boston …

Lemski:  I left New York in the mid-’70s with a business degree, and turned life inside out and went to work in an orphanage, as a counselor, on the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota. The music that I continued to read about kept me encouraged. At that time I discovered Cadence: The Independent Journal of Creative Improvised Music, with its perspective on free jazz, setting me further from the mainstream — i.e., DownBeat, where fusion was being covered as the “Next Wave,” as Impulse characterized it. I loved Bitches Brew though, and Return to Forever and Weather Report, and other creative “Jazz-Rock.”

After one year on the reservation, feeling I wasn’t contributing enough and didn’t belong there, notwithstanding my heart to help, I moved to Salt Lake City. Yep! There I met liberals and radicals, politically and musically, with whom I exchanged ideas. I started to buy more records based on reviews in the “alternative” mags. And then I discovered European Free Jazz. I was so enthusiastic that the music had spread and then come back to the US in yet another free form! I lasted a year and a half in SLC, then moved to Denver.

Jazz was mainstream there in a few venues, Denver musicians mainly, and there was a 24-hour Jazz radio station. A Pacifica Radio affiliate in Boulder presented more progressive jazz. I did a substitute show there later and had all the freedom to play that I wanted. In time I got to know the underground jazz world there. I was in Denver 1989 to 2001, then in New Jersey from 2001 to 2012, and then came up here to be with my girlfriend.

AF: Around Boston you’ve become a kind of one-man clearing house. It seems every few weeks you’re promoting some performance or other. How did the Creative Music Series come about?

Lemski: I’ve long had an interest in live performance and wanting to make more music and artists available to the public. In the late ’90s in Denver, I formed the CMS. There was great potential there — a perfect stopover for musicians on tour, going to the coasts. But it wasn’t happening. So, I took the bull by the horns. Talked to people in the jazz world and made contacts, found the venues, and in the late ’90s started booking acts.

Media in Denver responded. Two newspapers — this was predigital. We got great coverage. And so many acts — Vinny Golia (once with Nels Cline), ROVA Sax, David S Ware, Joseph Jarmen, Tom Cora, Marilyn Crispell, Carlos Ward, David Murray, John Carter, Myra Melford, Leroy Jenkins, Michael Bisio, Wibur Ware, String Trio of NY (with Regina Carter, yeah, a “free” improv Regina then), Ron Miles, Fred Hess, Hugh Ragin, Bruno Carr, Joe Bonner, Art Lande, Tim Berne, Steve Lacy, Peter Brotzmann, Joelle Leandra, etc., etc. For a dozen years this put Denver on the improv map. But then media changed.

AF: And Boston?

Lemski: Boston is different. Music here is great, cutting edge. But to get an audience anywhere you need to get covered. I loved the Boston Phoenix; I was sad when it ended. Promoting is a struggle, dealing with the lack of media coverage. I’m a soloist, if you will, and producing the series is a lot of labor. I do the booking, and make sure the artists are treated professionally; I’d say my watchword is integrity. Being honest in dealings with musicians and audiences. I’ve tried to book eight or nine shows a year, skipping winter, and have succeeded for the most part. But the amount of work can burn you out. This year I overbooked and it’s been hard. I’m easing back.

A scene from the Richard Broadman documentary A Place for Jazz.

AF: Talk about the upcoming event at Cambridge’s Middle East.

Lemski: On August 12 we’ll be screening the documentary A Place for Jazz — about the legendary ’80s 1369 Jazz Club. It was made by award-winning director Richard Broadman. It’ll be at ZuZu at the Middle East, 474 Mass Ave in Cambridge. Anyone who remembers 1369 will enjoy it, and people who never experienced that scene will be interested in this documentation of the area’s improv music history.

The way the event came about is that some jazz friends learned of the film — which came out in 1991 but hasn’t been seen in several decades — and recommended it. I got in touch with the producers and I watched the documentary and became excited, thinking wow, look who came to Boston and Cambridge, to this little club. There was Archie Shepp, Branford Marsalis, Dr. Lonnie Smith — and local artists like John Lockwood and many others. The 1369 was great, the stage was wide open. You had blues, jazz, all of it. Though this was before my time in Boston.

The film premiered in Cambridge at the Brattle Theatre — in 1991 — and eventually was out of release. We were going to do an event several years ago. I got in touch with the Harvard Film Archive, and the new director there was very interested. We were going to present it at the HFA, but Covid shut it down. Fast forward to this year, and that earlier opportunity had evidently gone away. So we moved the venue to the Middle East.

The first set will feature a quartet of Boston musicians doing a set of today’s jazz. The second set will be a viewing of the film.

AF: Last word?

Lemski: I’ve never been far from the street, as it were, personally and in activities, so I like the music to be “on the street.” Still an art, however, not watered down or labeled inaccessible, but real and honest.

David Daniel is author of many books, including White Rabbit, a novel of the Sixties. His new book, Beach Town, a collection of stories set on the South Shore, will be published by Loom Press in early 2023. He blogs regularly at richardhowe.com

1 Comment

  1. byron hoot on July 27, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Great interview.
    Creative jazz musicians seem to be the prototype of what an artist is — someone at the edge improvising ad infinitum.
    Thanks for the opportunity to read this.

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